Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Future of Sanskrit

I was recently quite surprised to receive an invitation to "spearhead" an effort to revive a Sanskrit college in Chennai. The mission, "to establish an institution conforming to and excelling the best international standards of scholarship, research and education." I thought I would post my response here, since I think that its scope goes far beyond the simple accepting or rejecting of the invitation.

Pranams. Please forgive me for taking so long to respond to your letter. January has been particularly filled with activities, as you may have noticed from the Facebook pages "Save Yamuna Save Vrindavan" and "Stop the Vrindavan Bridge."

Now, as to your interesting proposal. My immediate reaction was to say no, that it would be impossible for me to leave the various duties that I have at the moment. And indeed, I have commitments that should take me well into the summer. Nevertheless, I have been rethinking my spontaneous negative reaction because of one thing and that is this:

The shortcomings of Sanskrit and indeed most Indian vernaculars at the present time is the paucity of translations from other languages. This paucity stretches across the spectrum of texts, from literature to scientific treatises, and is something that needs to be corrected if Sanskrit is ever to become a viable medium for communication.

Even today, the use of English dominates at almost every level of education in India and no one takes any other medium seriously if they seek material advancement. Because of the international situation, this may never change, as English is becoming more and more dominant everywhere in the world and there is even some concern in India that the advantage it enjoys due to having a fairly large English-speaking base is eroding. This is putting even more pressure on improving the English-medium educational system. This is a dangerous development, as it will mean the core of the Indian identity itself will be weakened and the people of this country will become more and more alienated from their own history and culture.

Be that as it may, we represent, let us say, a small but significant coterie of Sanskrit lovers who would like to see it revived as a lingua franca of the Indian intelligentsia on some level or another. But this cannot be done if all we do is hearken back to the age of the Upanishads or Kalidas. The Sanskrit Bharati organization is trying to revive Sanskrit as a spoken language, which is admirable enough, but Sanskrit likely never was nor will be the language of the bazaar. It was always a language of the educated, of the high arts and of ideas.

Sanskrit's lessening influence can be traced to one reason: its insularity. (1) It was pretty much restricted to the elite ruling classes and the brahmins, who controlled education. And (2), after a certain time, brahmins refused to interact with other castes and cultures and so stopped the infusion of life blood into the language.

The life blood of human society is the interaction of ideas and thought. If one sits back on the idea of one's inherent superiority and refuses to even consider anyone else's point of view as worthy, then slowly one atrophies and withers.

The fact is this: Sanskrit is THE Indian language par excellence. It is the only Indian language that can claim universality. In ancient times it was the language of ideas and debate in philosophy. If it lost strength, it was because it became rooted in various dogmas, about literature, about philosophy, about science, and stopped debating with others.

But it is hard to see how any country can legitimately find its own soul by selling itself out wholesale to another linguistic tradition or culture, especially when its own traditions are as rich and varied as those of India. It finds its soul by translating ideas taken from any variety of sources (viSAd apy amRtaM grAhyaM) into its own words and engaging with them, teaching those it finds worthwhile to its own people in their language, and then rethinking, reformulating and developing them independently.

In a recent paper, Swami Veda Bharati said that one great problem is the negative effect that arises from Indian teachers translating Indian concepts through the filter of Western eyes.
...when philosophical concepts in the words of one language are translated to another, the translation may not be truly expressive of the meaning or the concept originally intended. Nowadays many texts are being read only in their translations in Eurocentric languages. When they are retranslated back for the readers in the original countries, be it India or China or Tibet, the entire meaning is diverted. This is known as the ‘pizza-effect’ [1].

Where pizza originated cannot be ascertained but the original pizza of Italy upto 17-18th centuries was a flat bread with some garnishes put on it and sometimes warmed-up or cooked in oil. However, it migrated to America, evolved there, and took on a very different form. Then this neo-pizza returned to Italy where now the people have all but forgotten the original, and the American pizza is the pizza. This is the pizza effect in translations, as we see it in the contemporary developments in some elements of the Indian (or Sino-Japanese etc.) culture in translation. A Hindi or Tamil word is translated into English according to the mind-set of the Anglophone people and is brought back into India. Here, many of the professors, teaching Indian philosophy through English medium, some not having deep access into the original languages or associated practices, are using that word which the students translate back into Hindi or Tamil according to the contemporary mind set[2]. This ‘pizza-effect’ needs to be corrected and the words need to be brought back to convey their original intent[3]. This can only be accomplished by referring to the lab work called meditation.


[1] A term coined by this author’s friend (an Austrian) late Swami Agehananda Bharati of the Dashanami Tradition, author of The Ochre Robe, later head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Syracuse, NY.

[2] See, supra, our reference to the concept of ‘mind over matter’.

[3] For example, the
ni-rodha is not stoppage. According to the authentic commentators it means sva-karane layah : dissolution of vrttis, operative waves, into their originating source, the mind-field, chitta, and the dissolution of chitta into its source, the equilibrium of prakrti.
This effect is not entirely negative, as it sparks discussion and the refinement of understanding. But the process should work both ways. Aristotle and Plato, Anselm and Aquinas, Shakespeare, Molière and Goethe, should all be available in Sanskrit so that their input is made into a truly "world-class" thought system, one that engages more truly the Sanskritic tradition with the European one. And of course, the thinkers of other great cultures like the Chinese and Japanese should also be made available. And such efforts should be made with reference to the original works, not filtered through the Anglophone sphere, as so much of the Indian experience of the wider world is.

To make a long story short, I think that I would be interested in setting up some kind of institution which had as its principal goal the translation of foreign language texts into Sanskrit, where these ideas would be taught, discussed and debated in Sanskrit. Of course, the traditional knowledge would have to be maintained, but its main purpose would be to establish a correct vocabulary. Sanskrit Bharati, for instance, often uses Sanskrit neologisms when there are perfectly good words already available, but are either unused or forgotten. But when engaged in such a vast project, the challenges on the language to grow and expand will be stupendous.

Some of the work has already been done by the Indian vernaculars, but most of it has been haphazard and without any governing body like a language commission to help create or police vocabulary. Such a body would need to be created for Sanskrit. Sanskrit Bharati cannot be allowed to inflict its regionally-based version of the language and pass it off as pan-Indian.

Furthermore, the regional disparities in creating Sanskrit-based terminology means that some order needs to be established in the attempt to create a pan-Indian Sanskrit. There must be a new Sanskrit dictionary that makes use of ALL Indian vernaculars and filters their application of Sanskrit in coining their own neologisms.

Plenty of Sanskrit institutions are chewing the already chewed (The Sanskrit departments of Indian universities each year produce hundreds of doctoral dissertations with bland titles like Svetasvatara Upanishad: Eka Adhyayana). What is needed is an institution that truly attempts to bring Sanskrit into the modern era.

Such a project would be very expensive and challenging endeavor. We would need to cooperate with existing Sanskrit institutions as much as possible, as well as to find experts in the different fields who would be willing to cooperate. But any attempt to teach Sanskrit only with reference to the Indian past is bound for stagnation.


Vikram Ramsoondur said...

A truly wide and ambitious vision that is, Jagatji. Let us hope that it does come to pass. The Sanskrit language deserves nothing less.

sfauthor said...

Nice posting. Do you know about these Sanskrit books?